Driving While Black
I recently drove to Colorado from South Dakota to visit my Colorado Besties. We move every 3-4 years and I develop really amazing friendships everywhere we live. So, I have some awesome lady friends in Colorado who I try to visit once a year (at least while we live a day-drive away from each other).
As I drove home, I realized I would have to drive through, not 1, but 2 serious snow storms. It was stressful of course, but doubly so because I had a 6-year-old and 3-year-old in the back seat. So, I chose to drive slowly and carefully, knowing this would potentially add hours onto my trip, getting us home well after dark.
To save time, I used all of my mom tricks to keep us on road. I traveled with a potty so that we could just pull off to the side of the road instead of making 20-minute stops at truck stops and fast food restaurants. Each child had a tablet, loaded with downloaded movies and TV shows. They also had busy books, art supplies, toys and books for reading. I even brought 2 shower caddies to hold their fast good meals so that we could keep it moving. Side note - this doesn’t work as well as I imagined it would in theory. My car seats still managed to attract every errant French fry and even a half-full bottle of chocolate milk…I’m still bitter.
We made it through winter storm 1 and were making up time. We drove through Northern Colorado, Eastern Wyoming, and finally into Southwestern South Dakota. The last hour of the trip was where we hit the second storm. The blizzard caused zero viability and I watched my fellow drivers slide into each other, but I knew where we were and how to make it home. We arrived at our destination without a scratch…at least on the outside. I was white-knuckling it for the last 3 hours of my drive.
As you’ll recall, the storm was not yet upon us at the 3 hours remaining point. The anxiety I felt was as the sun set and I realized, I was nowhere close to home, and nowhere close to another Black person, other than my children. I was a Black woman, on the road, with my babies, in quite literally the middle of nowhere. There was no scenic majestic beauty to observe as the sun went down. There was just a creeping awareness that I was alone and vulnerable.
I slowed my speed once again, for fear of being pulled over with no witnesses. I almost cried when I realized that the kids and I were going to need to stop to go to the restroom. Although I had a potty in the car, it didn’t feel safe to stop along unlit highways to let the kids pee in a potty. We stopped at a rest area and before I turned off the car I made sure everyone was ready to go. We literally ran into the restroom and back out to the car, no lallygagging allowed.
My gender makes me vulnerable. My race makes me vulnerable. My parental status makes me vulnerable.
This is where I need you to see how my intersecting identities have me paranoid, hyper-vigilant, and white-knuckling my way home. My gender makes me vulnerable. My race makes me vulnerable. My parental status makes me vulnerable. I was literally (and rightfully) afraid that I would be pulled over by the police or accosted by a stranger, physically and sexually assaulted in front of my children, that they would be harmed in a similar way, and if they survived that they would be motherless. Now you may think this is an absurd response to the sun setting. I need you to understand, it is not. I grew up in the same county as Sandra Bland. We went to the same church during my adolescence. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, please Google her name.
A recent CDC report revealed that Black women are murdered at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people and Indigenous women at a rate of 4.3. While women of other races were killed at a rate of 1 or 2 per 100,000. Even though Black women are only 13% of the population in the U.S., we make up half of the homicides against women.
Even though Black women are only 13% of the population in the U.S., we make up half of the homicides against women.
So what do these gruesome statistics mean for me, a happy, healthy, successful (whatever that means), psychologist living the “American Dream” (whatever that is)? It means that every day I live with a level of “minority stress” that augments my baseline anxiety level. Therefore, when I am put in stressful situations (driving alone, at night, in rural America, with my babies in the back seat) I grip the steering wheel tighter and I pray without ceasing. I heed my husband's warnings to “please be safe”, knowing why the look in his eyes is not casual or nonchalant. I don’t always live in fear, but I am certain I do so more than you would assume. The next time a person from an oppressed identity group tells you about their fears, please just listen, believe them, and do your own work to learn more and change the systems that cause these fears in the first place.
Irene Summers Temple, PhD is a licensed Counseling Psychologist in private practice at Irene Summers Temple, PhD LLC in Rapid City, SD. She specializes in multicultural counseling, coaching, and consultation, serving helping professionals, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, fostering mental wellness and identity development.